Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Women In Science - extra edition

Tuesday - extra edition - Women In Science Summary Statement

Those who are visiting this blog via links in the online comments to the TierneyLab ("Male Bias or Female Choice?") in The NY Times today may not be particularly interested in this week's rants about bizarre and unwieldy accounting procedures that afflict university researchers with grants. For tomorrow's post, I was planning on writing about how much -- and in what circumstances -- faculty use their own money to pay for research expenses. The majority of my posts are about basic Science Professor issues.

I write about life as a Science Professor, but my experience is profoundly affected by the fact that I am a woman. I am never just a Science Professor, as I am constantly made aware that I am a Female Science Professor (hence the name of this blog). Throughout my academic career, I have had negative experiences directly related to being female, and I know from discussions with female colleagues that I am by no means alone in these experiences:

physical: grabbed, touched, pinched etc.;

verbal: told I was/am stupid, told that women can't be scientists, told that I'm not a 'real' professor because I'm a woman, told that I am not objective because I am a woman, told that I am not as qualified as men who have the same credentials; and: whenever I attain something (a job, a grant, an award, a position of responsibility in a professional organization), I am asked "Did they have to select a woman?" or told "They must have had to select a woman".

economic: paid significantly less than male peers, given less lab space, given lower priority for leaves/matching funds/other requests related to $$ and my research program;

other: burdened with service work but never given a leadership role; I am forever serving as the low-level but diligent member of committees and/or as the token woman.

Additional examples are detailed in this blog.

Summary: Discrimination, bias, and harassment of women in subtle and non-subtle ways are pervasive in the physical sciences.

The academic culture is set up in a way that makes it difficult (but not impossible) for women to have families and a successful career; academia is not alone in this, of course. Nevertheless, despite endless studies of why women drop out of science, the culture of bias and the family-unfriendly organization of the typical university make it unlikely that the situation will improve any time soon.

The question of 'female choice' -- as in, do women choose not to be scientists -- is not a relevant question; it is a diversion based on flawed data. Those of us who teach at universities have long had significant numbers of women in our undergraduate and graduate science classes. Many of these women are passionate about science, and they are very smart. It is bizarre to ask a question about whether women decline to pursue scientific careers because they aren't interested or whether they drop out because they don't want to work hard enough. The women are there, they are interested, and they are able.

The relevant question is: How can we change things to encourage these smart, motivated, hard-working women to stay in science?

If this blog had not been mentioned in the comments of the TierneyLab, I probably wouldn't have bothered writing about John Tierney yet again.

I have written about him before: first when he questioned the NAS study "Beyond Bias and Barriers" based in part of the fact that the NAS committee was mostly comprised of women. I noted the many committees I have been on that have been dominated by men; in fact, for many committees I am the only woman. Some committees at my university are entirely composed of men (including a recent hiring committee that recommended hiring .. a man!), and no one seems to be doubting their objectivity.

I later commented on an even stranger op-ed piece by Tierney, in which he wrote about how liberating it must be for women in Civil War reenactments to wear bulky, sweltering clothes. I was disappointed that he did not take his essay to its natural conclusion of considering the liberating effects of wearing a burkha.

There are young women science students, researchers, and faculty today who have not personally experienced or been aware of bias or discrimination, and this is extremely encouraging. Clearly, though, there are not enough women having these positive experiences to increase the participation of women in science. Something has to change.


Scientia Matris said...

Thanks for your FSP. I just spent some time writing about the non-subtle approaches senior men can take to side-lining women passionate about science. I spent most of my time wondering if I was over-reacting. Me thinks not eh?!

Professor in Training said...

Well said FSP.

Cloud said...

What I think is most interesting about the comments over on Tierney's blog is that the women who say they don't think there is any discrimination tend to be younger/earlier in their careers. I used to think that was because things were getting better. Maybe they are. But as I have gotten older/more senior, I also have begun to think that you are just more likely to run into discrimination as you get more senior- it seems that women science majors and PhD students are now accepted by most men, but women professors and senior industry scientists are still difficult for some men to accept. Also, the pattern of little biased things becomes harder to ignore as the little things pile up. The first few times you hear a particular sexist comment, you can dismiss it as just being the workings of one guy's warped mind. Somewhere around the 25th time you hear that same comment, you begin to suspect something more systematic.

Thanks for being willing to write about these issues.

jls said...


And I agree with cloud -- I definitely think it takes some time to realize that sexism still exists and is pervasive.

-female science postdoc

bsci said...

As one of the linkers from the Tierney post to here, sorry if you weren't interested in the extra publicity.

In regards to cloud's comment, one of the better comments on his post (#116 by Beth) was from a woman to never used to see discrimination as a undergrad and even a grad student. When everyone was a peon, there weren't many ways for her to be put down. Only when people advanced high enough for there to be differences in authority did the discrimination appear.

FSP, thanks also for the nice summary of your Tierney commentaries. I just think what many amazing science writers would do to get a weekly column in the NY Times science section and am horrified that the space is wasted on this hack.

Anonymous said...

You signed your name as Lee Kottner in your comment. I'm confused. Are you Lee Kottner?

Female Science Professor said...

Why do you assume that comment was written by me? It was not.

sandy shoes said...

This Tierney person sounds like a dimwit.

Thank you for this blog FSP.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting on this. I started to write a rant on Tierney's comments page, but decided "why bother"? I don't have time to take on all the amazing biases and idiocies in his piece.

I'm going to vent by telling JUST ONE story: last week I had a conversation with a faculty member in my department where I mentioned that Professor X is well-known to sexually harass women students. My point in bringing this up was that Professor X was until recently the director of graduate studies in the program. I suggested that this is a problem. (Note: I wasn't even suggesting that Professor X should be disciplined for being a sexual predator, just not given a position of power over every single grad student in the department.)

The faculty member's response? "Gosh, I knew Professor X is a sexual harasser, but it had never occurred to me that it might be a problem for him to be the director of graduate studies."

This faculty member is one of the people who gets it in my program - active in diversity issues, etc. She's even female and a feminist! And yet it had never occurred to her that having a sexual predator in charge of grad students in my (75% male) department might be a problem.

And people wonder why women grad students leave the physical sciences?

* bangs head against wall *

Thanks for listening. I feel slightly better now.

GeoGirl said...

I was pretty surprised at how boneheaded that column was. It completely misses the point - why do all these math/science women go to life science? Not because they have an intrinsic love for life science, but because they've been DISCOURAGED from other physical sciences. It's a case of one pushing away more than the other pulling. My mother's the perfect example - she dropped chem in favor of bio when nobody would hire her for labwork as a coop.

I do think we're doing better by nibbling away at the edges - as a woman who's in a field that has only very recently reached parity, I'm seeing that the "old boys club" seems to be more used to us and cognizant of the many exceptional women in the field, much more now then when I first graduated from undergrad (about 10 years ago).

Ms.PhD said...

And it's not just the physical sciences. Although much is made about the majority of young women in the life sciences, at the faculty level we are still a minority. And I was one of those who would have enjoyed the physical sciences just as much, and YES, the atmosphere DOES make a difference.

Little did I know, it's pretty much all the same sexist shit once you pass the PhD level.

I agree with cloud, I think many young women do not experience or recognize discrimination. I think this changes as they get older.

FSP, I love your blog and thank you again (and again and again) for writing it.

Anonymous said...

I thank god that I am a white,
make professor. From this blog it
seems that non-white or female professors see *everything* through a gender/race filter. Being white and male means that when unpleasant things happen to me I can look for their source (some idiot) rather than
bias. Of course, now I don't have
any where to vent...

Stephanie said...


Odyssey said...

Anonymous said: I thank god that I am a white,
make professor. From this blog it
seems that non-white or female professors see *everything* through a gender/race filter. Being white and male means that when unpleasant things happen to me I can look for their source (some idiot) rather than
bias. Of course, now I don't have
any where to vent...

As another white male professor, let me assure everyone else here that we don't all think like Anonymous...

You certainly don't need to be female or a minority to notice the bias.

Science Cog said...

Everything you say in your post I have experienced too. It is not so bad in primarily teaching schools. Don't know who the lucky women are who escaped this in a research setting.

ScientistMother said...

Very well said FSP, with your permission I would like to reprint you post in a newletter for the members of our Women in Science organization.

Female Science Professor said...

Thanks, yes of course that's fine with me.

The Mad Chemist said...

Isn't funny (NOT in a Ha Ha way) that academia and people who work there are considered to be more progressive and yet this double standard continues to exist?

It is one of the infuriating reasons I left academia. Thanks for writing about it.

Anonymous said...

In my own experience, these things are *highly* variable depending on your university. Problems at a certain Cambridge-based university, for example, does not mean that there is a universal problem. I also have a problem with this anecdotal data. Nearly everybody, both men and women, has some of the same kinds of gripes: not paid as much as peers, given less lab space, lower priority for various requests. Complaining about a higher committee load because committees need "token women" and simultaneously about the existence of all-male committees doesn't seem completely reasonable.

Female Science Professor said...

So.. I can either complain about being a token woman on committees (and therefore having a higher service load than my male colleagues) or I can complain about all-male committees, but not both? It is so hard to choose, especially since both are directly related to the lack of women science professors. I promise I will stop complaining in this somewhat unreasonable and apparently inconsistent way when more women science professors are hired and promoted, making both situations rare and unlikely.

Doug said...

I'm convinced that women are being funneled into engineering who wouldn't otherwise choose that career, because that was my wife's experience. Just because somebody does well in math and science doesn't mean they want to be an engineer or scientist. My wife was a poster child for women in engineering, even being featured in an article for a university publication. She had superb grades, fantastic internships and landed a great job making good money. The only problem was she didn't enjoy her work. At first I tried to change her mind regarding a career change, even obtaining for her a verbal offer for a research fellowship to pursue graduate studies at my former university based on her stellar grades and academics, but she just wouldn't go for it. Instead, she switched to health care, and started enjoying work for the first time in 6 years. People should quit pressuring women to study subjects they really aren't interested in just to push their own women-in-science agenda. It's a horrible way to retain good talent.


Anonymous said...

Why is your wife not speaking for herself?

sara said...

People should quit pressuring women to study subjects they really aren't interested in just to push their own women-in-science agenda.

Exactly. Just like people should really quite pressuring women to study subjects they aren't interested in just because of implicit bias.

We don't know until the studies have been done, but I would guess that there are more women kept out of sciences, engineering, and maths due to implicit bias than have been pressured to remain in those fields due to encouraging equality.

It is important to remember that not everyone is the same. Even if there are gender generalities, there will still be individuals who do not fit the mold.

I wish I could go back to my 7th grad self and say "hey, it's ok for a girl to like math club... don't listen to those idiots", or even to my college freshman self and say "you're doing well in physics, and a degree in physics will help you study what you want to study better than that biology degree". The idea of encouraging women in the STEM fields is to have mentors saying these things to women, since we can't go back in time and say them to ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Given the glut of Ph.D's who can't find academic jobs EVERYONE should be DISCOURAGED from becoming a research scientist. If women are better at being discouraged than men then so be it.

Anonymous said...

To have encouragement to pursue an interest in the sciences is one important piece of the puzzle. To have a mentor who looks like you and maybe has experienced some of the choices you face (when to have kids, or perhaps more importantly for me, when to have a life) and who you can relate to is another. I think mentors are incredibly valuable.

I'm just starting to be a mentor and have to thank all of the women out there who mentored me! I couldn't have done it with out them paving the way! Thanks also to FSP. I've been reading this blog (and lurking) for several months. I find it very useful as I am just finishing year one of my tenure track job at a large state school in a science department where I am the only representative of my gender in a tenure track position. The insights of another woman in science are helpful.

JRB said...

The idea that women are being encouraged to study science/engineering, even if they "don't like it" is interesting. It assumes that men who are encouraged to study STEM do in fact "like it".

(Making gross generalizations...)I think that men are encouraged to choose careers based on the pressure to make a decent living (to support future families). If men also find something they like to do, so much the better. With women, I think we are given the idea that our choice of study/career should be something we are truly "passionate" about. How many men or women are "passionate" about engineering? (Yes, some people like FSP are passionate, and I am glad for that).

I think this is leftover from the (sort of) past, when a woman's career was considered more of a distraction or amusement, and not as a way of financial support (that is what your husband is for silly.) Therefore a woman who loves music, or art or literature may be encouraged to pursue that even if she will make very little $, while a man might be discouraged from following a passion as a career.

So maybe the women being "forced" into engineering/science "against their will", are just experiencing some of the pressure that men have long had to deal with? Just a thought.

(I am a woman with a PhD in Engineering.)

Anonymous said...

As a fellow FSP, can I just say that many of your observations are spot on with my experinces.

Becca said...

This is another one of those posts that gives me hope.
Thanks again FSP!

jc said...

I am SOOOO thankful for FSP's blog and many other women in science who not just help me know that I am not alone, but I do take the advice and suggestions made to heart. I agree that when women are underlings (undergrads, grad students, postdocs) working with men as their boss it's a different story than when women are hired on the same level (asst prof, leadership roles). Whole different ballgame. It's not a "leaky pipeline"... men hire men. Even better, white dudes hire white dudes. PERIOD. But someone needs to puke on Tierney's shoes! Oooooh, I'll do it!

chemcat said...

Not only white dudes tend to hire white dudes. They mentor, support, encourage them.
Women's accomplishments are simply ignored.

jrb, what you say makes sense. It is my experience too, although in my case it worked in my favor, so to speak. My brother was discouraged from studying philosophy and nudged towards economics. My dad wanted me to study classics, and when I said I wanted to do science, he suggested a course in science journalism (?!). He let me choose, basically because he thought it didn't matter (e.g., husband would provide for me) and as long as I had the option to teach high school, it would be fine...

Doctor Pion said...

Another white male here, to say there are plenty of supportive people out there - but "plenty" could still be a minority of us. What is really difficult is what I would call inadvertent bias, the clueless result of borderline Asperger types who aren't that aware of what they are doing.

It is striking to me how different things are at a CC, where women make up about half of the faculty and academic administration overall but are still a (substantial) minority in the sciences. Here the biggest problem is how students disrespect female faculty, and its not clear to me how the male faculty can change that.

lost clown said...

WOW. Some really great comments here. /sarcasm

I almost didn't go in to math and physics. Why? I was encouraged *away* from them by profs and, yes, by that old 'girls can't do math' trope. I had to do a science credit for school and I picked physics. My prof was one hell of a woman. I ended up tutoring half the class and she kept pulling me aside after every class and yelling at me. "What are you doing? You're a scientist!" Now I am and I love it.

For every story you have about a woman "pushed into science" I bet I could find at least 1 story (and in all likelihood a handful more) about women like me pushed away from science.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this -- just discovered your blog and am so happy to find a fellow FSP. I was blind to the sexism (wanted not to see it or to be seen as a complainer) until my dept chair decided that my tenure case was not as urgent as was my male peer's, so he sat on mine for 5 months doing nothing while he was busy pushing the guy's case through. This was despite the fact that my 14 outside letters all said mine was the best tenure case they'd seen in their lives! Nice way to treat someone so well respected in their discipline, eh? Killed my love of my job. I still don't have tenure 15 months after submitting my case, but it is apparently now half way through the process! Nice...